Friday, June 15, 2007

Doggerel #103: "Intelligent"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

If there's one thing that woos love, it's the genetic fallacy: The idea that some quality of the arguer changes the validity of his arguments. One of those particularly popular with trolls is intelligence, either boasting about their own supposed genius, or our alleged retardation. Granted, we're all certainly guilty of calling a number of woos idiots, but as skeptics typically go, that, by itself, is not fallacious, just rude:

The key difference between the typical skeptic and typical woo troll is that the skeptic doesn't base his arguments off of any supposed IQ scores, while the woo typically does. "You're an idiot, therefore your argument is wrong!" is an ad homenim fallacy. "You used fallacies X, Y, and Z, therefore you're an idiot!" is a legitimate argument mixed with a non-fallacious (but irrelevant) ad homenim.

Of course, there's more to this doggerel than just the ad homenim: It's often the basis for arguments from incredulity or ignorance. As one ufology woo who stopped by here said,
"A lot of pretty intelligent people have gone on record with very unusual observances, and they all didn't mistake traffic lights in foggy conditions for flying discs, etc."
The problem is that intelligence is not a shield against all the foibles humans are subject to. Anyone can say or do stupid things. Sometimes it's a lack of knowledge that's the culprit: Astronomers are the demographic least likely to report a UFO. Why? Probably because they specialize in looking up at the sky and identifying the myriad of objects that show up there. In other cases, it's instilled belief and prejudice. If I looked up and saw some dark object zip by, I'd probably guess it's a bird or some other mundane thing, and maybe remember, falsely or otherwise, a flapping motion. An ufologist, however, would also be at risk of false memory and describe radical movements, distances, and so forth. In other cases, it's arrogance: Thinking too much of your intelligence tends to make a person assume he knows all the possibilities: If he can't identify it as something he knows, he'll assume it's an alien spacecraft by default.

That last one is the big fallacy of a famous quote:
"Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. -Arthur Conan Doyle
It presumes that you already know of all the possibilities, something a person who overestimates his intelligence is more likely to do, and thus, perform an argument from ignorance and/or incredulity. If you start thinking like Doyle, you'll find yourself presuming fantastic woo when "I don't know" would serve you much better and leave you open to new possibilities.


Anonymous said...

You know, it's quite appropriate you mentioned Doyle, because Arther Conan Doyle was a serious woo-believer. He was perhaps the only serious believer of the Cottingly Fairies, and he had a diehard belief in ghosts.

Oddly enough, he was friends with Houdini, although it was a "spirit writing" session involving Doyle's spiritualist wife that started Houdini down his second career as the proto-Randi...

Either way, Doyle really is a shining example of how intelligent people can be dead wrong about woo.

Berlzebub said...

Granted, we're all certainly guilty of calling a number of woos idiots, but as skeptics typically go, that, by itself, is not fallacious, just rude:

And, most of the time, accurate.

Bronze Dog said...

I used Doyle for that reason, and his picture for Doggerel #40: "I was a skeptic, once."

His most famous character was in a profession that depends on skepticism, and yet, he was an outrageous woo.

One thing that showed his woo: Doyle couldn't figure out how Houdini did his Metamorphosis trick (pretty much exchanging places with his partner in a trunk), so he said Houdini dematerialized from inside the trunk and rematerialized outside.

Bob said...

"Not everyone uses charisma as the dump stat."

I'm an INTJ according to that useless test. I may as well have read my horoscope that day.